Neighborhood Watch (series) 9

9

Grady had always known me, even though she hadn’t known all the things I’d done. She knew my heart better than I did, as cliche at that sounds. It was Grady that taught me that we aren’t the sum of our actions, or even the sum of our intentions. “We are greater than what we wish we are, and less than what we think we are.” When she said it, I must have made a face. She walked up to me so fast and deliberate, I braced for the inevitable slap to the face I anticipated. Instead, she grabbed me so intensely and kissed me with a passion I’d never felt from her before. “We’ll never fully understand or define God’s love in this lifetime, honey. Don’t knock it. Miracles can’t be explained. He gave me you. He forgives and heals all things. He pumps your heart and breaths life into you every second. Put that in your brain and mull it over until you go crazy. Then give in and let go, my darling.”

I had accepted that Grady was a ferocious Christian about five minutes into our first meeting. It surprised and confused me that such a gorgeous package of anomalies, walking around on two sexy legs and taking an interest in a friendship with me, could exist in the world … could survive in Fingerbone. I would come to understand that she defined the place. Opinionated, self-reliant, bad-asses lived in Fingerbone. Sure, there were a handful of socialite-wannabes, crotchety old coots, rednecks, and a few even fit the description “dregs of society.” But for the most part, townsfolk had two things you could always count on: curiosity and friendliness. Pretty harmless features, attractive even, if you have nothing to hide.

It wasn’t until Grady leaned into me one day at the river, whispered the punchline to a joke she was telling me, and then caressed the laugh-lines she’d created with her hands that I realized. I didn’t have to hide from her. She was one of only two in town that had managed to make me laugh since I’d been there. I enjoyed her company, her smell, her mannerisms, her eyes. But I believed her interest in me strictly sisterly, and had self-talked myself batty not to screw up this great friendship by scaring her. I tried to tame my attraction to her and made no inappropriate advances. So when her adoring fingers silenced my giggle, and her lips traveled to my fading smile, my confusion and cautiousness departed, and I fell.

I fell first in love, and then literally into the river. If you know my past, neither makes any sense. I’m not usually at a loss for grace and balance. It was a huge part of my profession at one point. As for love, you have to understand. What I used to do … it would have been like a librarian who couldn’t read, or a mechanic allergic to grease. But Grady and I, we were clumsy like two new colts loping about on spindly legs. She opened the door to all we could have, and we suddenly figured out we had brought a teacup to a well the size of the ocean. That splash helped connect us for eternity though. Eternity minus a bullet.

Later in her living room, as we were warming up next to her wood burning stove, I asked her what she was thinking when she kissed me. I expected her to say, “I wasn’t,” or something that meant there was still some pondering happening. Instead, she’d reminded me of our first conversation.

“I was thinking about what you said when we first met. ‘People aren’t always what they seem, Ma’am.’ Poetic and ironic. I was looking at the scars on your neck after you asked me about Fred Tanner. When you said that, I looked into your eyes and those words stirred my heart more about you than Fred. I wanted to know what made you tick.”

“I thought you just wanted to preach to me.” This made her laugh and give me a little shove.

“I wanted you to know what make me tick.”

You know the rest. The warmth, the light flickering in her eyes, the words and how they purred softly into my emotional wounds … we didn’t make love that night. We held each other, snuggled while fully clothed, and felt the power we had to heal and protect one another, even in our sleep.

 

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Neighborhood Watch (series) 8

8

Jack had Hen read the notes she’d taken over the phone with the county coroner from the preliminary findings.  Sharing this information before the formal report was done was not common practice unless you were a detective in the police office down the street from her office.  The only reason she’d been inclined to share things that might be pertinent to the early investigation with a team an hour away in a town some 2000 feet above her was because Hen was her ex-sister-in law and whom she liked better than her own brother.  The lab tech down there either wasn’t as kind or the tests would actually take several more hours before we would know what killed the dog.  Hen had confirmed her suspicion about an injection with the coroner after describing what she’d found.

We stood with our hands in our pockets (lame attempts at keeping them warm), studying the empty timeline, the photographs taken with a camera borrowed from the department in Southtown, and a cast someone had made of a foot print in the ground around the dog. Nobody spoke while our minds raced.  This quiet pandemonium  ensued for nearly 20 minutes.  It was Jack’s rule – a trick picked up in his younger days as an MPI (Military Police Investigator) in the Army.  Just seconds before we were all about to bust open in thought streams, he silently uncapped a marker and wrote three letters on the right side of the board where he’d asked Tom to leave some space.  The BOLO on the truck hadn’t returned anything yet.

“Motive.  Means.  Victims.  Let’s take turns on these three areas based on what we’ve just worked out or questioned in our heads.  Give me what you know, or ask a question for each of us to pontificate on and see what we can string together.”

Tom, a Deputy who had been with Jack the longest, was new to investigation.  He was the patrol guy that handed out warnings or tickets if you pissed him off.  He was the guy that mostly sat in the office when he was on shift and did the minimum drive time required.  He wasn’t lazy, just bored.  Jack asked him to stay on shift when we had all convened because he wanted a different, untrained perspective.  I could tell there was more to Jack’s plan in this regard than the others understood.  Tom was getting an experience he’d not had his entire time on the team.  If this sparked more motivation in him, more energy, he would stay on that much longer and Jack wouldn’t have to hire yet another replacement for a hard-to-fill position.  He’d gone through eight people since I’d moved here two years ago.  That had to be tough.  Tom had been solid throughout, but it was clear he was winding down and looking elsewhere.  There’s nothing worse than donating forty hours of your life every week to a monotonous, thankless job.

“What do you want for ‘means’ up there, Jack?” Tom asked.

“What does the evidence tell you about the ‘means’ used in each aspect of the crime?  Things like, ‘did they use a lock pick?’ or ‘what kind of weapons did they use?’  Anything that will point us to the unsub’s skill set, knowledge, strengths or weaknesses.  What they use and how they do things helps ID what kind of person they are inside and out.  Get it?”

Tom nodded an affirmative and glanced, self-consciously at us.  He shifted his gaze to the filtered headlight gliding over the window drape and appeared almost starry-eyed when he said, “It don’t seem right, what he did to that dog.”

We all acknowledged the observation in our self-imposed silence now.  He’d spoken what had eaten at me since I had heard Hen’s report.  “I think that speaks more truth about this guy than what was inside the house.  He killed the people inside without shedding any blood and without any weird ritualistic or fetish crap you might see in a serial killer.  He killed nearly an entire household, something I would usually align with rage or a crime of passion, but I don’t see much rage in the way he did it.  But the dog …”  I trailed off, a lump forming in my throat.  I really needed a antacid.

“Overkill.”  Hen was always one for few words with deep meaning.

“Like he hates dogs or at least this one.  I seen dogs killed with poison, but never like this.”  Our acceptance of Tom’s opening statement had dropped his guard and I could see he was feeling more comfortable.

“You guys keep saying ‘he.’  Are we sure the unsub is male?”  Jack played his role as facilitator as he wrote “poison” in the “Means” section, and “family” next to “V.”

“I think there’s a 90% chance our subject is male,” I said, “because I think he knew her.”

“True.  Not much struggle from her in the event she was awake.  The sheet … and rolling her over.  Seems like he didn’t want to look at her or the shape of her face.”  Hen pointed to the sheet covered woman and momentarily stepped closer, as if she was looking for something to grab at inside the picture’s realm.  “He stuck around in that room for awhile or else returned after he’d finished with the others.  Why else would he roll her over like that?”

I was careful how I phrased a response to this.  “Suffocation isn’t like strangulation.  A pillow held over the face takes a long time to deprive the brain of oxygen and make her pass out.  It also leaves her arms and legs free to kick and fight.  There would have been noise from a struggle like that.  If she fought, it was too little too late.  But there’s no bruising or scraping on her arms or hands and you said her nails were clean.  So how does he enter the room, reach over her and grab the pillow next to her head, place it over her face and hold it there for two to five minutes without a struggle?”

I left this question hang before answering it.  “She was out cold.  Either passed out from drugs or alcohol maybe, or something else.  But there’s no other way the body lets its life-giving oxygen be withheld, even if the mind is willing, without instinctively fighting.  He knew it too.  That’s why he turned her over.  If she’d been awake, or even cognizant of what was happening, he would have been able to tell if the job was finished.  But he couldn’t feel if the body had given up.  So he turned her face into the pillow at some point.  That way, if she did move to get air, he’d know.  If she  didn’t, he’d know it was over.”

Jack had frantically scribbled notes on his “MMV” outline as we’d talked.  Tom had grabbed a chair and was slouched, scratching his face stubble and watching Jack write.  Meanwhile, I realized I may have said too much.  Hen was staring at me with a furrowed brow, her hands on her hips, and her eyes asking me who the hell I was.

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Neighborhood Watch (series) 7

7

The first thing you notice as you enter the front door, is the empty threadbare love seat in the living room, facing a blaring television.  A wood stove to the right sits strategically in the far back corner, taking up a third of the living room area, and backed by a grey brick alcove that probably reflected the heat when burning.

Crime Scene

Crime Scene (Photo credit: Alan Cleaver)

The place has an “open” floor plan, and to the right, closest to the door, you can see over the small dining table, and then over the countertop, to the kitchen.  Every digital clock in there – the microwave, the coffeemaker, the stovetop/oven display – they’re all blinking different times.  On the wall between the kitchen pantry and the heater,  a door leads out to the makeshift carport someone constructed.  Tarp covered plywood is fastened to the side of the trailer on one end, and propped up by several four-by-fours on the other.  The place smells faintly of cat pee, but mostly of cigarettes.  The wallpaper bears witness to the latter.

The hallway on the left extends for the entire left side of the trailer and has doors to two bedrooms on the left and the master bedroom at the end of the hall on the right.  A bathroom adjoins the master bedroom and opens into the hall next to a large coat closet which takes up the rest of the hallway on the right.

The intruder entered from the carport.  There was no forced entry and the front door remained locked.  Oil stains on the gravel there and tire indentions meant that it was common for the family to keep a car parked there (and apparently to keep the side door unlocked).  This probably gave cover for a stealthy entry requiring very little concern for onlookers.

In all, there were three murders if you didn’t account for the family dog.  Hen found him when she went to look into a group of the neighborhood cats at the rear of the place.  They were surrounding the poor thing as it lay there, howling like she’d never heard before.  Having investigated her fair share of complaints about pets suspiciously dying since she retired and moved to Fingerbone, Hen knew the cause of death before waiting for lab tests.

The enormous German Shepherd had been poisoned.  Not uncommon for folks to cruelly take matters in their own hands when local pets trounced their gardens, or bullied their Shih tzus, Chihuahuas, Pomeranians, or other poor excuses for dogs.  Unlike other incidents she’d encountered, this poison hadn’t been introduced slowly.  It had most likely been injected  since no animal would ingest the volume of a fatal chemical that would result in the effects she’d seen.  His eyes were completely blackened and no longer had the gloss that healthy eyes possess.  It was as if the sheen that normal eyes exhibit was dulled with sandpaper.  His body lay flat but was not positioned as if he had grown weak and lowered himself.  It was more like he had suddenly grown stiff and had been pushed over, as if he’d died standing up first.  His tongue was grey and stiffly hung over his teeth, crusted foam framing it all around.  If the weather had been warmer, no doubt flies would have been swarming around the feces the poor animal had suddenly released as death very suddenly strangled his efforts to protect his home.

The coroner had determined the the mother had died first.  She was found face down in her bed, fully clothed in her pajamas, and covered with a sheet.  The report was only preliminary, but there were remnants of down feathers in her mouth and nose.  She’d been smothered in her sleep with an old pillow and apparently the killer rolled her over and pulled the bed sheet up over her head.

Next was the teenager.  He had been tied to a chair and ligature marks on his neck indicated he’d been strangled with a thin cord or line of some sort.  His headphones were still on his head pounding out some Eminem playlist on his iPod when Hen and the team discovered him.  His bed was still loosely made, with a  porn magazine laying open.  The team to surmised he’d been awake, and didn’t hear the killer move past his room and down the hall when headed toward the mother’s room.  The area where the younger brother slept appeared untouched except for an open drawer in the chest by his bed.

The old man that slept in the last room on the left died shortly after.  Much the same way as the woman, he’d been strangled with  a pillow taken from the boys’ room.  It was unclear whether he’d died of asphyxiation or a heart attack.  His mouth and eyes were still closed, as if he had never awoke.  Unlike his daughter, he was not covered.  Even in death, his serene face would fit the soft mumble of a rhythmic snore.

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Neighborhood Watch (series) 6

6

I watched Tom Nelson draw a timeline on a yellowed dry-erase board at the little town Sheriff’s office.  His brown and tan uniform hung off his frame and wondered how much pestering his wife Janet gave him about it.  The room had one window, next to the door, and the drapes testified of days when people sewed their own things and practical was more important than pretty.  They hung, tired and stained, fastened in the middle by a couple wooden clothespins to keep curious onlookers at bay.  The walls bore old paint, slightly discolored above the ancient baseboard heaters that worked only part of the time nowadays.  Jack and his brother Jarod had begun plans to put a propane heater in the   collection of rooms that comprised the office, in the only noticeable “city” building in town.  They called it “Town Hall” but it looked more like a workshop.

A single desk faced the door, as if it lead the “pack” of desks strewn across the rest of the front room willy-nilly.  Each desk had it’s own personality, some with metal frames, some wooden, all with somewhat neat surfaces with the exception of the occasional abandoned soda can or water bottle.  The place smelled like aftershave and roast beef.  “Hen, you got anything for my stomach?  That pizza was good but I have a bad case of heartburn,” I said, as my pal returned from changing in the one, closet-sized bathroom.

“Nah, left my purse at home.”

“Very funny, smartass.  We’ll see who’s still laughing when the cheese kicks in.”

“I forget your lactose issues,” she remarked and leaned on the desk belonging to the chair I’d taken.

Tom was still filling in the pieces we knew on the board.  Jack had run home to kiss his kids goodnight and tell his wife he’d be late.  After the smalltalk and sarcasm we’d used to escape the moment’s severity passed, I picked at an old piece of scotch tape on the desk and asked her, “You got any ideas?”

“Nope.  Not until Jack gets back kiddo.  He said you’d poke before he got back.”

“Honestly Hen, I’m just trying to wrap my head around it right now.  I can’t find an angle.  I’m in on this regardless of how long it takes Jack to grant me his permission,” I added air quotes as I glanced up at her, “I’ll wait till he gets this started.  I’m just trying to get rid of this nasty feeling inside.”

“I can imagine it must have been so heart breaking – the drive down with him.”  She looked over at Tom to make sure he was still writing and leaned in conspiratorially.  “It wasn’t very roses what we saw up here either.”  She hooked the chair with her foot from the nearest desk, rolled it over and sat down.  “I know what you’re saying, though.  Feels like we’re all of one mind to get this bastard though.  Between the four of us I think we’re the best shot for finding him.”

Hen raised her chin in acknowledgement as Jack came through the door and locked it behind him.  He cupped his hands over his nose and mouth and steamed up his glasses as he tried warming his hands and nose.  “Startin’ to get cold out there,” he said, glancing at the proximity of Hen and I, making eye contact with her, and turning toward the board satisfied his instructions to keep me from jumping in had been followed.  “Tom, you’ll want to leave room on the right for whatever we find once the vehicle is tracked down.”

Tom picked up the eraser and made some adjustments to the evidence board, took a step back and capped his marker after studying it once more.  “Think we’re ready boss.”

Jack nodded at Hen, who grabbed a folder from the desk closest to the board and began fixing pictures with magnets strategically around the board.  “Sneaky,” I said to myself as I quickly jumped up and repositioned for a better view.  We all four stood in a semi-circle facing the recreated scene – the eery scene at the trailer where the little boy would probably never live again.

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Neighborhood Watch (series) 5

5

Percussion cap muzzle loader

Jack didn’t talk about his sister much anymore.  I had met Grady when a case I was working on had brought me to Fingerbone for the first time.  She’d won me over but hadn’t been able to drag me back to her hometown for good … until she’d disappeared and I’d come looking for her.  Jack and I had finally found her near  Rhodes creek (her favorite fishing spot), with a .50 Caliber Maxi-Hunter Bullet in her brain.  It had been open season for muzzleloading rifles, which required hunters to be closer than usual for accuracy.  This meant mistakes were unlikely unless they involved dinged up trees or tracking a wounded animal for miles.  We’d closed the case.  But closure had never come for Jack and I.  We missed her.

So it was odd that he chose this particular moment to bring her up.  He was always careful with her memory, especially around me.  This case must really have him worried for him to drop his guard.

“You only say that when you know I’m right you have to begrudgingly agree with me.  You forget I know you pretty well by now, Jack.  Damn, that pepperoni smells good.  Just one piece, I’m starvin’ here.  I had an IV in my arm no less than six hours ago and the doc said I should eat, remember?”

“Alright, pass me a piece too.  It’ll be cold by time we get back up there anyway.  Hen will understand.”

We were taking pizza up the treacherous roads to the “hilltop” community of Fingerbone, “Population 599 people, and one grouch.”  Every year the small community of Fingerbone had “Gold Rush Days,” complete with parade (mostly people on their four-wheelers), bake sale, and fishing contest.  The month prior a handful of residents would be nominated for town “grouch” and they’d have to run (like politicians).  At the beginning of the Gold Rush Days parade, the winner would be announced.  That was during the day.

At night it was a free-for-all when most the townsfolk, anxious for blowing off the steam of economic depression and unemployment, would drink themselves stupid and dance in the streets.  The morning after always found the main street resplendent with every color of beer can, bottles, and whatever food was left on crumpled up paper plates after foraging animals had feasted.  But a small contingency of people would get up early that morning and bag all the trash, sweep main street and the sidewalks, and make it all look nice again.  That was the great thing about Fingerbone – not many people, but they all stuck together.

I’d listened to Hen complain about one of the guys in the bar one night.  “He’s the lowest form  of life in the universe.  Janet finally got her mind right and divorced him.  I just can’t believe gals in this town are desperate or stupid enough to fall for his crap!”

“Isn’t he the dude that fixed your generator last winter?”

“So?”

“Well he must not be as evil as you’re making him out to be then, right?”

“Are you serious?  You think just because someone does something nice that makes them nice?  Who do you think is going to haul your butt out of the ditch when that golf cart you’re calling a vehicle slides off the road next winter?  I’ll tell ya’.  It’s gonna be any-old-body that sees ya’.  Don’t matter if they’s all in a hurry to go sell some meth or gotta go slap around their wife … we are all just what we are up here and we do for each other.  We might hate this one or that one, but we are smart enough to know that when the chips are down, we’re all we got.  The preacher might be the one who’s gonna get you to work on time if your car breaks down; and he might need you to find loan him a cup o’ sugar for those brownies he’s making for Sunday dinner.  He don’t care that you’re, misterly with the sisterly, you just need to get to work – just like he may need some sugar.”

I had laughed so hard that night.  Looking back now, I felt bad.  I had lived in Jack’s rent house for nearly two years.  I hadn’t ever said much to those folks or to the little boy for that matter.  Other than “Watch out you don’t hit my car with that ball please,”  I’d never even asked him his name.  What kind of a neighbor was I?  Guess I still didn’t fit into the hilltop culture.

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Neighborhood Watch (series) 4

4

My Sony digital recorder“You understand, I have to clear you before I can tell you anything more.  So Tom here will take you into one of the rooms and a couple of us will be in shortly to ask you some questions.”

There was no point in objecting.  He was absolutely right.  Jack knew I had nothing to do with this besides rushing to the child after the assault, and then flagging his vehicle down for help.   But he and his small staff, viewed by other departments as country bumpkins, would have their methods scrutinized more than others.  If he wanted to solve this case and see justice done, he’d have to do everything by-the-book.

I followed the officer into an interrogation room that looked nothing like the television renditions.  A heavy wooden desk, reminiscent of my elementary school days, sat in the middle of the small office setting.  There were empty shelves to the right, and I shuffled sideways between them and edge of the desk to sit in the chair facing the door.  The wall opposite the shelves was covered, from corner to corner, with file cabinets and an even smaller space to squeeze through.  As I sat in the squeaky roller chair, I took a deep breath to chase away the nagging sense of claustrophobia I was feeling.  Across from me, on the “business” side of the desk, a faux leather chair faced me.  Tom brought in a second chair, smaller but of similar style, and placed it next to the other.  He smiled and excused himself.

Ten minutes later, Jack and a detective I didn’t recognize entered and sat down.  I leaned forward, my chair squeaking as I  scooted it back a bit, and planted my forearms on the desk. I noticed their chairs were completely silent as they made themselves comfortable.

The detective placed a tape recorder on the table.  His finger poised on the record button as if preparing to pull a trigger, he focused on me and asked, “You’re familiar with this, yes?  I understand you are a detective.  I’m going to hit record now if you’re cool with that?”  His tone was less about seeking my permission and more about an established protocol.  I nodded and the red light glowed on the little machine.  He stated the date and he and Jack’s name, title, and badge number – never taking his eyes off me.  “Please state slowly and clearly into the recorder your full name, date of birth, address for your home of record, and a phone number where you most commonly be reached.”

“Legal name Molly Malone. Born June 23, 1984.  I live at 271 W 3rd Street, Fingerbone, Idaho.  Cell Phone number 409-435-3242.”  The detective wrote down the information as I spoke, even though he was recording it.  It was a common interrogation practice.  I knew he would start by asking some questions I’d be certain of the answers, and that anyone would be comfortable answering regardless of their guilt or innocence.    They would then observe the subject’s body language and demeanor, the speed of their answer, the direction they looked … and would use these as a baseline for gauging a person’s truthfulness later on in the interview.  If the interrogator was really good, they could identify micro expressions commonly associated with dishonesty, fear, or other aspects that could help answer questions left unspoken.

The detective continued.  “Are you married?”  Interesting.  Not even one minute into my interview and I was already enjoying some observations of my own.  I could tell by the way Jack tensed his jaw for a millisecond that the question made him uncomfortable.  I assumed he was nervous about what the detective’s reaction would be when he got around to what Jack perceived as “outing” me.

“No.”

“Have you ever been married?”

“No.”

“Do you have children?”

“No.”

“Are your parents still alive?”

“Yes.”

“Where do they live?”  He was keeping the introduction to this process simple, asking only one question at a time to give me a false sense of comfort or security.  When he started in on the important questions, he would turn up the heat and throw them at me two or more at a time.  Cranking up the intensity as the interview progressed was classic methodology and this guy wasn’t impressing me with anything innovative.

We progressed through the ages of my folks, the state of our relationship, and to Jack’s pleasant surprise (I’m sure), this guy never asked me about my orientation or whether I’d ever killed anyone.  This guy was not the sharpest tool in the shed.   If I had any part of this thing, I’m certain he would have missed it.  He then followed protocol and had me dictate a timeline of my whereabouts for the past two days up to the present.  He discovered that I didn’t know my neighbors, not by name anyway.  The extent of our “relationship” had been me waving and smiling, according to standard social norms for that region, and getting the cold shoulder from “Ma and Pa Kettle.”

Of course, I didn’t tell him what I thought of their ridiculous front yard, it’s remnants of “Hee Haw” days gone-by.  Carcasses of sun faded, plastic “Big Wheels,” and long defunct “Sit-n-Spins,” cluttered the scene … along with old tires, cinder blocks, and the quintessential yard-car adorned with blue tarp.  I didn’t mention the various camouflaged clothing items (skivvies included) that were habitually hung on the clothesline for weeks because none of them could cart their lazy asses back out to take them down.

Eventually he hit on what he thought to be the key elements of his interview.  “Can you think of anyone that would want to see them gone or that would want to harm them in any way?”

“As I’ve said, I didn’t know them at all.  I don’t know any of my neighbors except for the people with the game processing business on the corner.  And even with them, I don’t spend time or talk with them much.”

And that was that.  He concluded that I was not a suspect and thanked me for my time.  Asked me to contact them if I have anything further that might help them with the investigation.  Walking out with Jack, I waited until we were out of the earshot of any of the regulars at this station.  “Jack, please tell me he’s not going to do the rest of your interviews in this case.”

“I’ll be handling the case personally; I just couldn’t question you myself after spreading the rumor that you’re helping us with the case and that I called you in.”

“Yeah, about that.  What do you see as the next move?”

“Malone, I only said that to keep you out of danger.  I can’t have someone outside the department messing with this.  Hen and the boys and I will get this thing done.  We’re not the “Barney Fife‘s” some people make us out to be.”

“I know that, Jack.  I don’t think that.  But you need my help.  There’s too few of you and you don’t want to bring these people down here in, if you can help it.  There’d be too many chiefs and the search would go south fast.  You know me; you trust me.  And though you don’t want to admit it, you need someone who can easily skirt the red tape.  You need that kind of speed on this case.  Jack – listen to me dammit.  I can’t tell you what went through my brain when I realized what that dirtbag did to this kid.  I won’t walk away from this, can’t walk away from this, even if you order me to.  I just have to DO something to make it all make sense … to put things back in order in the cosmos or something.”

He started shaking his head halfway through my protestations, as if the act would negate what was spewing at him.  He gripped his jaw, now scraggly with the long day’s growth (we’d been off the hill since the late morning and it was now nearly seven in the evening).  “I’ll think about it.”

“It’s not uncommon for private investigators to consult with police departments from time to time, Jack.  I think – ”

“I said I’ll think about it.  I will.  Now let’s go grab a few pizzas for the team and head back.  I got a long night still ahead.”

“Great.  You can finally fill me in on everything Hen found so far on the way back up.  Don’t look at me like that.  You’re thinking about it – I get it.  In the meantime it can’t hurt for you all to add my perspective on everything … until you are finished thinking about it, that is.”

“Sometimes I wonder what my sister ever saw in you.”

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Neighborhood Watch (series) 3

3

Intravenous IIt felt like someone was pushing ice water through my veins.  In fact, it was pretty close to that.  When I woke I was laid out on a gurney in a hallway.  A saline pack above my head was half empty, its tube draped over my shoulder and running parallel to my arm.  They must have stuck poorly the first time because the back of my hand was sore and I could see the small bruise that had formed when the needle nicked the vein, causing blood to form just under the skin.  The taped gauze where the saline drip entered my arm didn’t cover it entirely.  I knew from my lab tech days in the Army, they’d probably had to poke around to get it set up right.  I was irritated at the prospect of having my hand look like I’d lost track of a hammer while nailing a board for the next few days.

I could see through the double doors to the reception desk.  Jack was talking to a woman with one of those nose piercings that look like a diamond.  I could never understand how people with those things kept from sneezing all the time.  She was nodding and folding a piece of paper he’d handed her.  He turned around to point down the hall and noticed I was awake.  I saw his lips change course to form an “Oh, look,” and he waved and smiled.  His wave morphed into a “number one” as he mouthed “Just one minute,” and I nodded my understanding, then reassessed my hand.

I reached up and tightened the clamp, shutting off the drip.  Placing the tube between my teeth and making sure there was no slack in the tube leading to my hand, I gently tugged at one side of the tape.  Peeling it upwards, I anchored a finger just below where the needle ended under my skin.  I pressed down and pulled my hand away from the tube, then pushed the gauze back over the buise and taped it down again.  Getting off the stretcher was a bit more difficult, since someone had failed to lock the wheels when they’d parked me there.  Thankfully, I was able to stay perpendicular to the floor and roll my shirt sleeve back down as I approached the doors.

“… until we figure this case out, just to make sure he stays safe.  And I want a phone call immediately if anyone asks about him or comes to visit, okay?  Hey, what the hell do you think you’re doing?  I said we’d be with you in a minute; what’s the hurry?”

“I know,” I said, “but I feel better and I know a thing or two about phlebotomy.  No sense wasting a nurse or tech’s time to do all that when I can do it myself.”

Jack shook his head in disgust but decided to concede the battle.  “This is Sue Polanski from social services.  She’s going to make sure the boy is cared for and stays protected while we work the case.  Sue, this is Malone; she is the private detective I’ve asked to help that I was telling you about.”  As Sue shifted her focus from Jack to me and extended her hand, his eyes fluttered quickly to mine.  His head bobbed an inconspicuous nod as his eyes narrowed and spoke an urgent message of caution.  It was not necessary.  I had already taken his lead as he spoke the deception, and smiled at Sue with my no-nonsense professional look of confidence.

Sue smiled.  “It’s a pleasure to meet you Malone.  I’m sorry to hear about your little accident, but so glad to see you’re just fine now.”  Texas?  Maybe Oklahoma … I wasn’t sure.  I’m a sucker for Southern accents.  I made a mental note to quell my curiosity another time (perhaps over dinner) about why on earth she would leave warmer climates for the daunting winters up in these parts.

“Thanks.  I hadn’t eaten yet when Jack called and, in the rush, I think I just got a little light headed.  I appreciate the concern.”

With that, Jack grabbed a nurse and lead Sue to where the boy was being treated (the Intensive Care Unit, I assumed).  I signed myself out at the desk and grabbed a bag of chips and a soda from the vending machines.  I had devoured the chips by the time Jack returned and we headed to the station to file paperwork.

“Thanks for playing along back there.  I don’t know if the guy you saw is paying attention or not.  If he thinks there’s a witness, it could put you in trouble.”

“What makes you think he wouldn’t just run faster and get the hell out of Dodge?” I asked.  Kicking a kid like this scum had, it was certainly evil.  But it wasn’t the same kind of crime as taking out your enemies, one-by-one.  It didn’t seem to fit – Jack thinking this guy was that organized.

“Hen called while you were out.  She had to go get a couple of guys to help her process the inside of the trailer.  There’s no one alive inside.”  I studied his face as he turned the ignition.  My neurons still hadn’t pieced together his words when he turned and looked directly at me.  “Share what I’m telling you with NO ONE.  What I’m saying is …” he studied me as he spoke, “… there were three dead bodies inside.”

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Neighborhood Watch (series) 2

An 8% grade with no guardrails

2

He took a turn off the highway I’d never noticed.  It started out as a dirt road, smoothed and dustless, probably one of the locals had sprayed it with some diesel illegally.  After the third sharp turn the truck hit gravel and Jack slowed down a bit.  “It’ll get a little bumpy in a few minutes, but we’ll save some time and the kid looks like time is more important than comfort right now.”  He had read my face and I acknowledged his answer with a nod.

“What about the call for help?  Won’t they be looking for us on the highway?”

“Doubt it.  They never take our calls up here as very immediate priorities.  By the time they think about scrambling a life-flight and calling for landing possibilities, we’ll be off the hilltop and pretty close to the hospital.  Beats waiting helplessly.”

The truck hit a patch where the gravel had dissipated and a puddle shone through.  The bundle in my lap didn’t moan or register any disturbance.  I was afraid to even look at him for fear he’d be more pale then when last I checked. Earlier Jack had grabbed a blanket from behind my seat and thrown it over him.  “Keep him as warm as you can; somewhere in that little shell he’s got to be going through some shock.  We’ll get a little warm in here, but I’m turning on the heat to try and help him out.”

We rounded another corner and I saw why this way was shorter than the graded highway.  There were less switchbacks with a steeper grade between each, and a straight shot to gun an engine from turn to turn.  That’s exactly what he did.  s we’d approach a curve at near 80, Jack would tap the breaks gently until we had slowed for the switchback.  Then we rounded each corner at about 15 miles per hour to avoid careening off the edge where no guard rails or cement blocks stood between the truck and the town in the valley below.

“Wanna’ try to answer some questions for me?  I can wait until we get there if you want, but it may help take your mind off what we might find out.”

“The truck that drove away looked like his dad’s truck.  I’m pretty sure it was.”  I almost whispered it in case the boy could hear, as if he wouldn’t have known or out of some sort of motherly protection mode.

“Did you see him?  Tell me what you saw.”

I relayed the story to him as best I could.  I told him about the man grabbing his shoe from the boy’s gut and putting it back on, then driving off.  I shared my frustration and hatred for the boy’s family in the little single-wide trailer, after I had kicked the door repeatedly and no one had answered my frantic shouts.  “I didn’t actually see the man’s face, but it didn’t look like the guy I’ve seen pick him up before.”

“But you recognized the truck?  Can you be sure it was the same truck?”

“Unless someone else got the window tint from somewhere that looks like they use purple cellophane to wrap the glass? Has a ‘Welcome to Fingerbone. Now take your wolf and go home,’ bumper sticker on the driver’s side cab window? I’m pretty sure it’s the same one.”

I could see his brow wrinkle as he processed what I had told him.  “Did you hear any noise from inside the trailer?  Anything at all?”

“The TV was on and it was loud, so I’m not sure.  I heard what sounded like a car chase, wheels screeching – that kind of thing.  I figure that was on the TV.  I know it must have been, because I could see the light of the TV on the window pane they have in the front, right next to the door.  I couldn’t make out anyone in there from that view.  And I didn’t, you know, feel the thing vibrate or move like someone was walking or anything.”

“But the kid came from inside to the truck, right?”

“I don’t know.  I didn’t even pay attention until I head him …”
My ears teared up at the memory again, and when I tried to keep the anger at bay, I only made it worse.  I cringed inside at what a frail, female mess I must look like to him.

Jack ignored it, whether out of professionalism or kindness, I didn’t know.  “So you didn’t see what direction the boy came from … or, wait!  Is it possible the boy could have gotten out of the truck?”

I remembered the open door, the driver’s open door.  What would the kid be doing over by the driver’s door?  If he’d come from the trailer to get in his dad’s truck, wouldn’t he have gone to the passenger side?  What was he doing on the street side, by the driver’s door?  I shared this with Jack.

“It leaves more questions to be answered, sure.  Just remember, every question is also an answer to something that could get us closer to the truth.  I’ll call Hen and get her to make some calls after she gets back from the trailer.”

He had called his other Deputy after we left the highway for the Lower Ford’s Creek shortcut.  Fat, grey Hen was my friend.  We’d gotten to know each other shortly after I’d moved to Fingerbone and hit it off right away.  Nicknamed “Hen” for her mother hen appearance, her real name was Darling.  She preferred Hen and I could understand why in a place where the only single men were either rugged (and usually drunk) loggers or scraggly meth heads.

We’d become instant best friends based solely on our inability and lack of interest in fitting in on the hilltop.  She was large and loud, unlike the pretty but mostly timid housewives or the quite but articulate artisans.  Most of the women steered clear of her because of her brash, tell-it-like-she-saw-it attitude.  They steered clear of me in case being a lesbian was contagious.  Hen teased me often about being overly concerned with this stigma.  I teased her for having a head full of silver hair at the young age of 38.

The doors of the ER opened and three people came racing toward the truck.  Jack hadn’t let off the horn from the instant he’d turned into the hospital and which had probably been the first clue something was up.  I let the first one cradle the boy out of my arms as Jack filled them in non-stop with as many details as he found pertinent.  Before I could even speak they had whisked him away and out of sight.  Jack had to help me out of the truck; I hadn’t realized the effort I’d put into tensing up and relaxing the whole way in an attempt to ease the bumpy ride for the boy’s little frame.  My body felt like I’d been hit with a Mack truck.

“Let’s get them as much information as they need and wait for the social worker to get here.  I’ll see what Hen has found at his place and we’ll head to the office to get the report filed.  Are you hungry?  We can grab something from the cafeteria here while we do this.  It’s pretty bland, but it’ll save time and I have a feeling we need to make every second count, OK?”

“Yeah,” I said.  Then I fainted in his arms.

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Neighborhood Watch (series) 1

1

It wasn’t that I didn’t care.  I was conditioned.  How many times do you recall hearing a dog yelping?  If we stopped what we were doing every time we heard a dog squeal or yelp, I mean do I really have to go there with this explanation?  Science fiction and ghostly cognition scenarios aside, there was something in the air that slapped the inside of my skull after the noise had already gone through my filter and factored into the “ignore” section.  I can’t explain what made me suddenly grab the bungee cord attached to that dog’s cry of pain as it plunged into oblivion and out of my memory banks.  That scene from King’s book came into mind with urgency.  It was that one from Dead Zone where the guy everyone thinks is okay just sinks into creepy, black evil and kicks a dog to death.  I turned my head toward the window.  It wasn’t a dog that had made that sound.

The neighbor (kind of a misnomer for a person who simply lives near you but isn’t “neighborly” at all) across the street had a visitor.  A blue GMC truck, the kind they came out with the year their SUVs made me think of hightop tennis shoes, had pulled up to the curb.  I’d seen this before.  Shared custody meant that a guy came and picked up his “50% son” every other week in his ugly blue, poor excuse for a truck with the cheap tinted windows.  The little kid I always see picking his nose and playing on the hillbilly trampoline in the front yard was currently wrapped around a shoe by the driver’s open door.  Looked like the shoe had come off the man when the poor little guy had tensed in shock and pain as the toe made a deep indention in his gut and part of his chest.

My right hand dropped my coffee and and as the ceramic mug shattered on the tile floor, my left hand reached out and slapped the window.  I simultaneously rose from my chair as a foreign language of murderous intent and disbelief grew from my throat.  The driver didn’t hear me yet.  This was obvious because he calmly looked over at the boy’s house and, upon noticing that no one was at the door or looking out after the boy’s welfare, calmly bent over and removed the shoe from the boy’s clutches.  He was careful not to touch the boy I noticed as I rushed from the window to the nearest door.  I lost sight of the driver while fumbling with the damn sliding glass door lock, and tore my shirt as I stormed out before the thick door panel slid all the way open.

I leapt off my front deck into the yard and ran to the boy as the truck sped out of view.  Through my tears I could see that the boy was unconscious – or maybe dead, I couldn’t tell.  I yelled at his front door, angry that someone hadn’t come out yet.  There was no movement, only the pulsing blue light of a television occasionally dancing on the front windowpane.  I gently scooped the boy out of the street and cradled him as I ran to the door and kicked it frantically.  No one answered.  I didn’t have time for this.

“Hold on, little one.  Gonna’ get you some help, sweetie.”

I couldn’t stop the tears of anger and sadness pouring from my face.  I ran with him into the street and yelled at the pickup that was headed toward us.  Jack Mitchell leaned over and pushed open the passenger door.  “What the hell…”

“Jack he needs help.  Someone just kicked him hard and he isn’t moving.  I can’t get anyone to come out of the house.”  I pulled myself into the truck with my little ward still tucked into the crook of my right arm.  Jack didn’t blink, reaching over and pulling the door shut, he grabbed the satellite phone he carried in his truck, hit some buttons, and propped it between his shoulder and cheek as he shifted the truck into gear and spun the tires into movement.  When we turned onto the highway, he yelled over the engine into the phone as his hand left the gearstick and pushed the thing closer to his voice.  “This is Deputy Sheriff Mitchell over in Fingerbone.  I’m driving a white diesel Chevy Silverado headed South on highway 8.  I have a fatally injured child who needs immediate medical attention.  Do you understand?”

Jack Mitchell was the head police officer in our little rural area.  It wasn’t coincidence that he was driving along this road when this happened.  He was my landlord and was probably headed over to fix my heater before the harsh winter hit.  He also owned his own construction company.  Most people up here had two or three jobs in order to pay the bills.  Some did it to live more comfortably.  I think Jack did it because he couldn’t be still.  We were 45 minutes from an emergency room and, for the kind of attention the limp little boy in my lap would probably need, we may as well have been at the North Pole.  I buckled us both in and prayed for a miracle.

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